This month, the UK has a historic opportunity to improve trans rights. The government is currently consulting the public on whether it should make it easier for trans people to have their gender legally recognised through the Gender Recognition Act.
It’s a small space with just enough room for someone to lay down on the soft black couch, but what it represents for Siobhan Reilly is employment for her and a safe service for many. That’s why the Manchester-based electrologist opened her own salon, Electrolysis by Siobhan, in February.
Electrolysis involves removing hair roots on the skin using the heat of an electric current. For a lot of the population, it’s a cosmetic extra. But for many people in the transgender community—typically trans women—hair removal services can be a lifeline, especially in cases where a transgender person must “pass” in order to access vital services such as hormone therapy or surgery. It's not just about feeling comfortable in one's own body, but also about being safe on a day to day basis.
“Facial hair can be one of the most pernicious things to get rid of. It's really hard to hide and therefore gives lots of trans people a lot of dysphoric pain,” says Solvi Naja, 28, one of Reilly’s dozen or so customers.
Gender Identity Clinics (GICs) can fund hair removal for some transgender people depending on their need, but approval of hair removal procedures can vary. In Reilly’s own experience and based on discussions she has had with other trans feminine people, many can find that the funding provided doesn’t cover enough sessions to effectively remove the hair or will only cover hair removal for the face, rather than other parts of the body. At present, the wait for a Gender Identity Clinic can be anywhere from one to two years.
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Paying for the procedure privately is impossible for many. Naja notes that most hair removal services are incredibly expensive. An hour of electrolysis will cost an average of £60 to £70, but Reilly provides low-cost options to give back to the community. "You know that the money is going towards people who are building private business, rather than people who see themselves as serving the community,” Naja says. “It's a collective asset."
According to Stonewall's LGBT in Britain report, half of trans and non-binary people have hidden or disguised the fact that they are LGBT at work because they were afraid of discrimination. Many who are transitioning do not have the option of hiding their identities, and not being able to “pass” can result in increased street harassment, discrimination and sometimes physical violence. Many may find themselves in positions where they need services like hair removal to help them live safer lives at work and out in the street, but then cannot afford it because transitioning has caused them difficulty at work.
This, among many other reasons, was why Reilly took the time to train to learn how to do electrolysis and open her own practice.
“Electrolysis services are becoming harder to find and in some areas or are impossible to find at all,” Reilly says. Her tiered pricing system charges £15 per hour at its lowest level and helps her assist trans people who are struggling to find an affordable solution when a GIC may be less forthcoming. She has more plans in the future for increasing financial accessibility.
But the cost isn’t the only obstacle trans people face. Even those who can afford the procedure privately may face other obstacles.
Reilly spend several years trying to find services for herself and talking to other trans feminine people to understand the difficulties many face. “Some electrologists choose not to see trans clients,” Reilly notes, adding that other electrologists might only offer services to clients who they deem “trans enough” for those services. Some only provide facial hair removal services as opposed to body hair removal, which some trans people need to address dysphoria. She has also heard of cisgender electrologists asking trans clients invasive and irrelevant questions, often out of curiosity, because they may lack the training and language to discuss their needs sensitively.
“For trans people, accessing hair removal can be at best, a difficult, stressful and unhappy experience,” Reilly says. “The gamble of approaching a new electrologist, not knowing their attitudes to trans people can just compound that stress and anxiety.”
Naja feels that going to a service offered by a transgender person specifically also means that it's a way that more privileged members of the trans community can support others: "If we know that we can support each other by paying a higher tier, that's more strength than we have just from going to a private therapist. If I'm going to spend thousands of pounds getting electrocuted in the face, at least I can console myself with the belief it has some greater purpose."
But it's not just an opportunity to support trans-owned businesses while accessing an important service. It's also about receiving that service from someone who's been in your shoes. “For trans people, accessing electrolysis can be a very vulnerable experience in the best of conditions,” Reilly says. “Something that can help to make people feel less vulnerable is having a trans woman for an electrologist, knowing I can empathize as a person who has and does experience dysphoria.”
Naja feels this has also been her experience with Reilly. "I've felt cared for, relaxed and with the knowledge I'm with someone I can trust."
The journey to opening this service was a long one and it wasn’t something Reilly did alone. “My good friend Jess Bradley swam the equivalent of the English Channel in a swimming pool to raise donations towards my training and set up costs. People were incredibly generous!”
Reilly also put together an online wishlist for some of the equipment needed for her treatment room and asked friends and family to use that for her 29th birthday. From that, she was able to get everything from a filing cabinet to a treatment couch to a trolley. “I feel so grateful to have had so much support from my friends and family at every stage of the project!”
From her salon in Manchester, Reilly has her sights set high. “I'd like to work on funding for trans people who can't afford even my tiered rates,” Reilly adds. ”I'd like to see trans people in other cities getting training to offer electrolysis themselves too.”